On the day of Peter J. Barnes III’s untimely passing earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy called the beloved judge and legislator a “workhorse, not a showhorse.”
With that apropos description in mind, those closest to the former state lawmaker and New Jersey Superior Court Judge, who died Feb. 22 at the age of 64, said Barnes would have been humbled by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tribute in his honor and loving memory.
Murphy on Tuesday signed legislation renaming the Dismal Swamp the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Conservation Area and renaming the regulatory body that oversees the 660-acre preserve the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preservation Commission.
The signing was conducted at the Songbird Trail entrance to the Dismal Swamp in Barnes’ native Edison with his family, Congressman Frank Pallone, State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette, Middlesex County Commissioner Director Ron Rios, former colleagues from the state legislature, and others in attendance.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) sponsored the legislation in the Senate, while Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and Assemblymen Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) and Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex) sponsored the bill in the Assembly.
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Among the countless contributions Barnes made during his tenure as an environmentally conscious state legislator – he served the General Assembly for seven years and the State Senate for three years before being sworn in as a Superior Court Judge in Middlesex County in 2016 – was to preserve the Dismal Swamp.
The renaming of the area and the commission charged with its oversight is a fitting tribute to Barnes, whose impact was as vast as the preserve itself and as varied as the nearly 200 species of birds that have inhabited the natural oasis.
“Serving his community wasn’t, for Pete, just a deeply held value,” Murphy said. “It was part of his identity. Everywhere he served, from local government – the Edison Township Council and Housing Authority, to the State Assembly and Senate, and the New Jersey Superior Court – at every step of the way Pete worked to make the lives of others safer, healthier, and better. And, he did. In fact, the existence of this protected land is a perfect example of the legacy Pete has left behind.”
Murphy noted the original moniker of the wildlife preserve starkly contrasted Barnes’ personality and that the Peter J. Barnes III Wildlife Preserve certainly “has a better ring to it than Dismal Swamp.”
“There is a little bit of irony that Pete poured so much of himself into the preservation of a place known as Dismal Swamp because anyone who knew Pete knew how life, to him, was anything but dismal,” Murphy said. “He saw beauty in everything. He found joy and purpose in everything he did.
“These wetlands are a place of wonder and beauty, a home to hundreds of species of animals, and a place where people come to reflect, find purpose and, yes, have some fun. This place is not dismal, not in the least. Neither was Pete. And now the two – the man and the place – will be remembered together, as they should be.”
The Dismal Swamp represents one of the last remaining wetland ecosystems in a highly urbanized environment of the state.
The area has been home to more than 175 different bird species, including the threatened and endangered grasshopper sparrow and yellow-crowned night heron.
Twenty-five mammals and more than a dozen reptile and amphibian species have been sighted in the Dismal Swamp, while archeological digs in the area have uncovered at least five significant archeological sites, including one more than 10,000 years old.
“Pete Barnes was successful in so many areas, but his work to preserve open space and protect the Dismal Swamp were crowning achievements,” Diegnan said. “This renaming ensures that his efforts in these areas are remembered and honored for generations to come.
“The Dismal Swamp preservation area would not be the wonderful place it is except for Pete’s dedication and focus. Every time someone celebrates the beauty of nature by walking the preserve, they will be celebrating what Pete Barnes was all about.”
Pallone said there is no more fitting way to honor Barnes’ memory than through the governor’s bill signing.
“He was a fierce advocate for protecting and preserving this area for the wildlife that call it home and for New Jersey residents who come here to enjoy it,” Pallone said.
“It’s a thriving habitat for endangered birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. During the pandemic, outdoor spaces became even more important as New Jerseyans found renewed appreciation for recreation and our state’s beauty. Nature preserves like these are another critical tool in the fight against the climate crisis and its effect on our environment and wildlife.”
In calling Barnes a “statesman and environmental steward,” LaTourette said the “dedication of this vast ecological gem” will forever remind others of Barnes’ commitment.
“From today forward, those who visit this natural oasis in bustling Middlesex County will come to know or be reminded of a thoughtful public servant whose commitment to his community and love for the environment has benefited generations of New Jerseyans.”
Karabinchak said the wildlife preserve – which spans Edison, Metuchen, and South Plainfield – is a “merited tribute to Peter’s effort and dedication toward protecting the land.”
Through those efforts, the Dismal Swamp holds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Federal Priority Wetlands status.
“Naming the conservation area after Peter is a wonderful way to honor and recognize his dedication to Middlesex County,” Stanley said. “Through his actions, Peter was able to protect hundreds of birds and dozens of endangered species.”
Rios said Barnes “dedicated his life and his career to helping others, always caring about the well being of his fellow neighbors,” adding Barnes “exemplified the best of Middlesex County.”
Middlesex County Commissioner Charles Tomaro said Barnes, “a humble man who truly believed in public service,” would “be quite embarrassed” if he “were here today.”
“Pete never sought accolades — or any sort of recognition — for everything he accomplished to make Edison Township, to make communities in the 18th Legislative District, and across New Jersey a better place for people and families. Pete always worked hard to make everyone’s life a little better.”
Murphy, with one fell swoop of his pen and perhaps an intended pun, fittingly closed Tuesdays’ bill signing ceremony with eight purposeful words.
“This,” he said, “is now the law of the land.”